In 2004, a little-known, yet landmark, legal case was celebrated. Fifty years before, Pete Hernandez v. State of Texas set legal precedent when it was ruled by the U.S. Supreme Court that Mexican Americans and all other racial groups were protected under the 14th Amendment. Before the case, Mexican Americans were considered white, and therefore, were not protected by the 14th Amendment.
Released today on DVD, A Class Apart, A Mexican American Civil Rights Story, brings to light the story of a small-town murder case that led to the landmark ruling. Pete Hernandez was convicted in the 1951 killing of Joe Espinosa in Edna. His lawyers — Gustavo C. Garcia, Carlos Cadena, John Herrera, and James DeAnda — appealed the decision, arguing that the all-white jury that convicted Hernandez did not constitute a jury of his peers since Mexican Americans were not allowed to serve on juries. The Texas Supreme Court upheld the ruling, saying that Mexican Americans were legally considered white. Not wavering in their struggle, Hernandez’s attorneys appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, reasoning that despite being legally considered white, Mexican Americans faced Jim Crow-style discrimination. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed and ruled in Hernandez’s favor. The ruling was a step for the Mexican American civil rights struggle, leading to challenges to employment, education, and housing discrimination.
Directed and produced by Carlos Sandoval, A Class Apart not only focuses on the civil rights movement, but also on the attorneys who argued the case, from the reserved and dependable Cadena to the charismatic, yet sometimes reckless Garcia. In one particularly tense moment of the film, Herrera’s son, Mike Herrera, describes how Garcia had an all-night drinking binge on the evening before he was to make his oral argument to the U.S. Supreme Court justices. Despite his antics, Garcia delivered a passionate argument, captivating the justices so much that they allowed him 16 extra minutes to make his case.
A Class Apart, an AMERICAN EXPERIENCE documentary and PBS Home Video, features bonus scenes, a slideshow of photographs, and printable teacher and discussion guides.